Friday, January 09, 2009

Salad days

the home office, originally uploaded by toyfoto.

It’s been a while since I’ve really done any introspective thought about my how I got to this point in my life.

And then Mrs. Chicken over at Chicken And Cheese wrote something that sounded so familiar.

In coming to terms with her new life as a “celebrity” blogger, she revisited her previous life as a suburban newspaper reporter wherein she could write about anything and everything she wanted; and where the full force of the best and worst of what this life has to offer plays out on a human scale. The real stuff of life.

I was a similar kind of journalist. Our tiny, weekly newspaper was set in a more rural than suburban setting, however, and I did everything from covering breaking news … to taking photographs at pancake breakfasts … to writing features about the new pastor come to town … to theater reviews … to writing editorials … to drawing editorial cartoons … to slapping hot wax on the back of a typeset story and gluing it to the page in anticipation of the rolling of the presses. I didn't have to scrub the toilet and I can't recall who in the office kept them clean, although I could probably guess.

Most of what we did, after all, was routine.

I reported on the small-town politics that made everyone hoarse from the screaming (or selectively deaf from the indignation).

I sat, riveted, month after month, as one town couldn't make its residents understand why they had to buy town garbage bags to pay tipping fees, when their own Glad-handled ties held so much more household waste.

I wrote about local musicians: the ones who aspired to something bigger than their weekend gigs at nearby clubs as well as the musicians who were already international names with weekend homes.

I interviewed the elderly, who shared with me some of their most vivid memories, such as what a gentleman Gen. Omar Bradley was, and how his wife, poor thing, had a box of chocolate melt on the lap of her crisp white suit in the heat of a parade.

I was charmed by the 98 year-old quiltmaker who as a child had wanted a horse, but her doting parents could only afford a donkey. She described her excitement as she and her parents went to collect the animal from the train station in an old Desoto. She laughed about how the beast of burden must have looked to the inebriated sailor standing on the street as they passed by: A jackass with its face pressed against a back window. She imagined he'd thrown down his bottle and never imbibed again ... just like they did in the movies. I couldn't help but buy one of her quilts.

I also covered the little old lady who was brutally murdered in her apartment. She'd been there a while before somebody found her. Her killer was never found.

I showed up, camera in-hand, at accident scenes and fires. I’ve been called a vulture and spat at.

I’ve also been sent elaborate thank-you notes (one of the more notable included booze and a recipe for making a tasty, adult beverage) for writing colorful stories about colorful people.

I covered a story about a boy cited for saving his best friend’s life when a swarm of bees attacked the allergic teen. I covered the story again the following week, when the hero had accidentally shot and killed the boy he’d saved.

I’ve had people take one look at me and disappear from the room, returning with a yellow, dog-eared photograph I’d taken of their kid … in an old car on the way to their wedding, shaking the hand of Uncle Sam at a parade, standing on stage at a school spelling bee … that made the paper.

Day to day it wasn’t what you might call a terribly exciting job. I fetched the mail from the post office, collected columns, film and photographs from some of our more far-flung correstpondents, and I typed press releases into the antiquated mainframe computer system. At five o’clock, I went home when the office closed, ate dinner and went back out again to attend one of three town, two village, one city or three school board meetings. On Saturdays and Sundays I’d troll the countryside looking for feature art for the front page. Lather. Rinse. Repete. Six years.

On the seventh year, I was promoted to Editor.

Nine months later, during the eighth year, I was unceremoniously laid off. Downsized. It practically crushed me. But never mind that. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?

I moved on ... I got a job at a small daily designing pages and writing the occasional story or editorial. I got freelance jobs where I got to do what I loved most - photographing people in the places they lived and worked. Sometimes I wrote the stories that accompanied the images, but not always.

I had grand hopes. I even had glimpses of something more; I got a byline or two in national publications but nothing bigger ever materialized.

When the children came, i ended the sideline work and focused on the day job and the laundry.

And yet, it occurs to me that I never really let go of the salad days.

They were special, those days when I was the only 20-something I knew who understood the basics of zoning and what it meant to file an Article-78. I knew how much the superintendent of schools made and what a rubber stamp the school board was. I had an opinion but I knew how to keep the story impartial.

I was young an unencumbered. I could work 12 to 14 hours for $12,000 and think it would take me places.

Mostly, though, it meant I couldn’t go to the corner store for a loaf of bread or a quarter-pound of cheese (pretty much the staples that sustained me in those years) without being stopped by someone who wanted to tell me what I should be covering.

I worked for their paper. They loved to hate it.

And I hated to love it.


Mrs. Chicken said...


We have had such similar experiences. I made exactly $12,000 for three years out of college, a figure roughly half of one year's tuition at the private university where I got my journalism degree.

And I loved it.

I hope maybe someday you and I can meet in real life and talk about our respective salad days.

And yes, I pasted the paper up, too. Every Tuesday was production day -- we still had wax machines and blue markers for cutting lines right from the prepress pages.

Ah, I can smell the ink and hear the press right now.

Don't tell anyone, but I miss it.

Binky said...

It's good that you haven't let go of those dsys. You've got a lot of writing to do yet. Maybe you don't know what form it will take, but you've got a solid foundation.

jasi said...

You know what? I love the way you designed the room. Great colors. I'm brilliant at organizing and keeping minimal (childproofing). But geez, I wish I could decorate like you did. Too bad we can't trade.

Clutter comes and goes, hon. Good taste can't even be bought! It's not so bad. =)

Shutter Bitch said...

I freakin' love this post. I forwarded it to my sister, a reporter in Cali. It's so nostalgic, and vivid.